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Interview: The Great’s Phoebe Fox

by Leora Heilbronn

I don’t think anyone would object if we would dub her ‘Phoebe Fox the Great’. The supremely talented star of stage and screen is mesmerizing in all of her performances, most recently in her work in the West End and Broadway production of  A View from the Bridge (opposite Mark Strong), in film festival favourite The Aeronauts (opposite Felicity Jones), and now in Intrigo: Samaria and Hulu’s The Great. In Daniel Alfredson’s Intrigo, Fox plays Paula, an award-winning documentary filmmaker who’s trying to uncover the real story behind a former classmate’s mysterious disappearance and possible murder years prior. In the new bold series The Great, from The Favourite co-writer Tony McNamara, Fox portrays the fictional Mariel, handmaiden and confidante of Catherine the Great (played by Elle Fanning). In both projects, Phoebe Fox’s characters are the ones you want to spend the most time with and when she’s not on screen, you yearn for her return. Therefore it was a distinct honour for me to chat on the phone with the illustrious British actress, and the following is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.

Brief Take: Hi Phoebe! How are you holding up in all of this?

Phoebe Fox: I’m good, thank you. Attempting sourdough starters and all that, trying to keep busy.

BT: As a viewer and as a reader, are you into murder mysteries and period pieces?

PF: Period pieces, yeah, I guess. Murder mysteries, yes, I mean I think the European do it very well. I think Swedish and Danish noir definitely, much more so than the stuff England trots out. Yeah, as much as the next person, yes.

BT: Paula and Mariel are very different women in very different time periods of course. Paula keeps everything very close to her chest, she’s an intelligent observer who keeps everything hidden. Mariel, on the other hand, is outwardly ballsy, she unapologetically says whatever is on her mind. Tell me about crafting both of those intricate characters.

PF: Well from character to character, I don’t have a set sort of process that I follow. Well, my first thing that I look to is the script, jotting down what people say about her, what does she say about herself, just to try to get a fully rounded view of the way that she’s projected in the actual piece. Then with Intrigo, normally, absolutely I would have gone to the book but actually the book hadn’t been released yet when we were filming it. So I had to just go with what I had in front of me. I sort of leaned on and explored the character through her duality. She has a very smiley, bright, affable exterior behind a more complex woman and I tried to sort of really make it clear in my mind what those two warring personalities were and how they were different.

And then with Mariel, I bought loads of Catherine the Great books so that I could really take in the period. My first question to Tony McNamara, who wrote it, was “Is Mariel based on a real person?”, and he was like, “No”, and also “the show is not historically accurate, so I wouldn’t really worry about it.” [laughs] It may sound incredibly pretentious but actually my way into Mariel was a) her hair, because it was very different to mine. They gave me a very, very long wig which was red, a reddish-brown, and I thought of her as a kind of bridle horse who’s got a bit between her teeth, like a wild horse that someone is trying to break in. That sense of tension of someone who has a lot of passion and a lot of anger and a lot of extreme emotions, but is literally held back by…there are moments in the piece where I have this kind of wimple, this kind of headpiece that actually ties around my neck and makes you feel really restricted. So that helped, and then the hair with the mane, of course. So yeah, quite different processes for each character!

BT: What drew you to playing each of these fascinating women?

PF: Well I was drawn to Intrigo because as I mentioned, I actually really like Swedish noir, it’s an interesting genre and they do it really well. And I really liked that character and that sparring relationship that she has with Andrew Buchan’s character, almost like a couple who are always mentally sparring. It’s interesting for actors because you need real mental dexterity to do that and I like that challenge. And then with The Great, I mean I loved The Favourite. [laughs] When that came through, it was like “Oh my God, it’s the guy that wrote The Favourite! Absolutely!”. But also, I love doing comedy and I don’t do very much of it. And she’s great fun, Mariel is great fun.

BT: I know you and Douglas Hodge were both in Curfew, but had you worked with anybody else in that ensemble before?

PF: No. Oh no, I had worked with Charity Wakefield, we did a Stephen Poliakoff drama called Close to the Enemy. But no, we really all got on, particularly me and Sacha Dewan who have a lot to do together, and actually me and Elle Fanning…Elle is one of the most down-to-Earth, gorgeously bright, and happy individuals that I’ve ever met. We really got on well. And Adam Godley, who I do a lot of my scenes with, so those three people. But yeah, we had a naturally good vibe between everyone. We’re all on a WhatsApp group now checking up on each other. [laughs]

BT: What was it like collaborating with Elle in terms of building that changing dynamic between Catherine and Mariel?

PF: It was really fun. Unfairly to her, I expected her to be very starry and Hollywood, and actually she is incredibly approachable. We both have quite the same sort of dirty sense of humour, that sounds awful. We spent a lot of the time just laughing on set and it worked really well because our characters are meant to like each other, and we did. I think you can read that on screen. Actually, in some ways we’re quite similar to our characters. In the show she starts off as this sort of optimistic bright eyed young girl, and I’m this sort of dry-humoured [laughs] slightly older girl, and that is very true to life. [laughs]

BT: You really have some of the best moments and best line deliveries on the show. Plus you get to punch the actor who plays your father on the show, which I know you really relished being able to throw a hit on stage in Twelfth Night previously. 

PF: I really like throwing punches. It’s something that I’ve actually not done much of. If you go to drama school, you do three years of stage combat. We all had to take an exam and it was all good, and then you get into the industry and nine out of ten of the women will never throw a punch. It’s just the way things have gone, but hopefully that’s changing. So I mean I loved it at drama school and I got a good mark in my exam, so to finally get the chance to actually get it all out, to feel like you’re actually punching someone, was great fun. I think I probably have a lot of unchecked anger, so it’s helpful to get it out like that.

BT: You’ve worked with some incredible scene partners over the years like Mark Strong and Jonathan Pryce. Who would you like to work with again?

PF: I mean top of my list is Nicola Walker, who was also in A View from the Bridge, she was really wonderful. Nicola is one of the most special actors and people that I have ever met. She taught me a lot, not only about acting but about myself. We are constantly talking about how and where and when we will get to work together again. We have lots of plans that we have never actually put into action, but I hope that one day we will.

BT: What have you been quaranstreaming lately?

PF: We just finished watching Ozark. We’re kind of late to that party but we watched three series in about two weeks, which was really intense and I actually don’t recommend that. It made me feel quite dark about the world, you know? It’s quite a dark program and to binge it is hmm, yeah, I’m going to have to watch a comedy now. Actually I did see Middleditch & Schwartz because I worked with Ben Schwartz in a film. He does this sort of live improvisation and they’ve done a Netflix special on it, and it’s incredible and very funny.

The Great is now streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime Video Canada. Intrigo: Samaria is now available On Demand. 

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Brief Take